The Parents Behind the Relationship

This cartoon from the New Yorker, posted on Facebook by a friend, and shared by the Vacuum County fan page had a caption saying: “Before we go any further, I should let you know that I have parents.”


Everyone, at one time or another, has had parents. Or parent surrogates, if the actual parents were not around.    But sometimes it is hard to imagine that someone we are having a relationship with also has parents.  Do the types of parents we have had determine the way we view love? Can we look at someone’s parents and learn more about their way of loving?

They say that what we experienced with our parents as children affects what we expect from a romantic relationship — that the sort of love we got affects the sort of love we expect to receive  — and to give —  in the future. Here in the video embedded below is the School of Life’s take on this issue.

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A salient excerpt from the video suggests that our first glimpse of  love was with a parent:

Our idea of what a good loving relationship should be like and what it feels like to be loved, doesn’t ever come from what we’ve seen in adulthood. It arises from a stranger, more powerful source. The idea of happy coupledom taps into a fundamental picture of comfort, deep security, wordless communication and of our needs being effortlessly understood that comes from early childhood.

At the best moments of childhood, if things went reasonably well, a loving parent offered us extraordinary satisfaction. They knew when we were hungry or tired, even though we couldn’t usually explain. We didn’t need to strive. They made us feel completely safe. We were held peacefully. We were entertained and indulged. And even if we don’t recall the explicit details. the experience of being cherished has left a profound impact on us. It’s planted itself in our minds as the ideal template of what love should be.

This conception or gestalt of what love consists of is by no means as universal as “The School of Life” would have us believe. But there is a certain segment of the world’s population that does hold to this view and that  can conceive of no other type of love.

Here are few properties of this kind of love: 1) It is one-sided 2) It’s a feeling of “satisfaction” with another’s perceived state of mind  and not the feeling of love for another, because  it’s the experience of “receiving”  love rather than the emotion of loving and 3) it involves having basic needs like food and shelter being met by someone else in return for nothing. There is the fallacy of the stolen concept here, because the satisfaction of being loved presupposes a   perceived love by another that remains undefined. But also, it’s an appeal to attachment love, as opposed to limerent love. 

There is a developmental fallacy inherent in supposing our first experience of love is of being loved by a parent, rather than loving that parent ourselves. Babies are born without a concept of self and other. When they first discover that the parent is not a part of themselves, they have still not yet worked out for themselves a theory of mind. So it is much more likely that the baby first loves the parent, before ever realizing that the parent returns that love. To feel your own love for another, it is not necessary to read another person’s mind. The raw feeling of  loving someone is directly linked to physical sensations from the reward center of the brain. To determine that someone else loves us is a much more convoluted act of abstract  inferencing, based on indirect evidence. A baby can experience preference for a particular caregiver’s face at about six months of age. Having a complex theory about another person’s feelings and thoughts does not happen until much later.So despite popular opinion to the contrary, we probably experienced being in love before we experienced being loved.

Even if we do get our first taste of a satisfying experience of being loved from our relationship with a parent, it’s not necessarily the nurturing, mind-reading all powerful being who took care of us in early infancy. It’s not always the one who held us peacefully and indulged our every need. That maternal, “unconditional” love that so many assume is the only “real” love gives way to other pleasures. There is the parent who threw us up in the air and excited, rather than calmed us. The one who encouraged us to test our wings, who engaged us in logical argumentation when we were only in preschool and corrected us when we erred, who when the other parent was trying to force us to cower indoors,  told us that, yes, we could go out walking alone at night, and here was a gun to protect ourselves with. There is the parent who treated us with respect, like a real person, while the other parent wanted to spare us all suffering,  stunting our growth.  In short, we could model our view of love on the typically more paternal parental role.

Not all mothers are nurturing, and not all fathers empower children toward greater independence. Sometimes the roles are reversed. Sometimes children have only nurturers and no challengers. Sometimes there is only the challenging parent, and not the nurturing one. But whichever way being loved is first experienced, our model for adult love should not be of an all powerful person who filled our every need and asked nothing of us in return. This is not because adults and children are so different. It’s because even chidren are not nearly as passive and dependent as this model assumes.

In our modern society, when people speak of love, they often have a skewed model of what love is, based on a misunderstanding of the parent/child relationship. Not only is the adult relationship nothing like the ties between a newborn infant and its mother, but also most of childhood is nothing like the helplessness of the newborn. Even at a few weeks old, an infant starts to give back to a caretaker and is not only and merely ever taking. If you’ve ever cared for an infant, you know it’s not all selfless service to a clueless, entitled being. They do give back first with smiles and teasing glances, but later with offering to help sweep the floor and wash the dishes, before they ever conceive of those tasks as a chore.  Toddlers long to grow up and be contributing members of the family. Unfortunately, in today’s society, children are seldom given a chance to make real contributions before adulthood. A parent’s ideal relationship with a child is not all giving and no taking. The more the parent respects the child, the more the relationship will be a two way street. Even when their positions are inherently unequal, good parents empower children to face difficulties and challenges, rather than fixing everything for the child so it goes smoothly.

The gestalt of love is not the same for everyone. Failing to define what you mean by love can lead to many misunderstandings.  There is great danger of miscommunication in assuming  that love is universally experienced as selfless provision of service by a being far superior to ourselves. This view of love creates an undesirable effect of turn-taking in adult relationships. Since adults are expected to give as well as receive love, lovers who conceive of love as selfless take turns being the “good, giving” partner, instead of giving and taking simultaneously based on the pleasure of  complementary, though somewhat asymmetrical sex roles. That is, such partners assume they can’t both be happy at the same time, and that one person’s happiness is at the “expense” of the other.

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The fallacy at the heart of this view of love is a misunderstanding of “taking and giving” as necessarily consisting of two separate acts. It is very difficult to give someone a hug and not get a hug back somehow. It’s not possible to touch someone and not be touched in turn.  Even in unreciprocated love, there is a great pleasure that comes from loving someone else. The idea that “getting” must involve exploitation of a “giver” is at the heart of this misconception.

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The selfless conception of unconditional love has ramifications well outside the family and sex roles. When people speak of universal love as a desirable goal for society at large, this can often be a shorthand for socialism and the nanny state. That’s why when someone starts waxing eloquently in praise of “love” and how all the world’s problems can be solved “by love, sweet love”, it might be a very good idea to ask them which kind of love they mean exactly. If it’s the selfless kind, ask them how they think everyone can sacrifice himself selflessly to everyone else and how any society could possibly function that way.


Reciprocity and Turn Taking in Love

About Aya Katz

Aya Katz is the administrator of Pubwages. When she is not busy administering, she sometimes also writes posts like a regular user.

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2 Responses to The Parents Behind the Relationship

  1. Sweetbearies says:

    Does real love exist? I am sure it does, but I have always been skeptical of people who put on an act about how great their love is in front of others. I think people who are truly in love with someone except that person for who he or she is, and want what is best for that person. So if someone really loves someone, they do not expect reciprocity in all feelings.

    • Aya Katz says:

      Hi, Julia. I do think real love exists, in many different ways. But I agree that those who put on a great act of loving someone in front of others are not those who love truly, nor should we expect reciprocity in all things.

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